7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Film

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen The Terminator (1984), The Green Mile (1999), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Dune (1984), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Star Trek Beyond (2016), The Illusionist (2006) or Les Misérables (2013) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books and TV shows and now it’s time for the film edition. As before, the films I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing movie collection and do not necessarily have anything in common (apart from the fact they’re all films), nor are they necessarily films that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressions, squeezed, whisked and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title antagonist in this movie: a cyborg sent back in time from the future to kill the woman whose unborn son will one day lead the rebellion against the Machines of Skynet. It’s a real popcorn muncher, full of cheesy humour, senseless violence, time travelling robots and a guy travelling back in time to sleep with his best friend’s mum (who he’s always fancied) so that he can become his own best friend’s dad…

Still, it’s justifiably a cult classic. Very ’80s but I defy you not to enjoy it at least a little bit.

My rating: 3.5 stars

The Green Mile

Tom Hanks portrays the protagonist in this heart-wrenching, fantasy(ish) film set on death row in the 1930s. It’s definitely not a family film but it is arguably one of the most excellent movies I have ever seen in my life. If you like a film which really draws you in and stirs every emotion from the outset and leaves you with Mega Feels for hours after then this is definitely the film for you.

My rating: 5 stars + 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Who doesn’t love Star Wars? This film is set in between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy and follows the story of a group of rebels who have joined together to steal the plans for the Death Star. While the tone is somewhat darker than in traditional Star Wars movies, I didn’t find it nearly as outrageously different as some had led me to believe it was. For me, it stood comfortably alongside the other films in the Star Wars canon and was at least a thousand times better than the prequel trilogy.

My rating: 4 stars

Dune

The original Dune novels by Frank Herbert are as long as they are complex and I get the impression that that David Lynch (writer and director) was trying really hard to faithfully capture the beautiful complexity of Herbert’s creation in this movie. Unfortunately, the end result was a film which was poorly paced, unclear and frankly… a bit of a mess. It also includes one of my pet peeves: voice overs, allowing us to hear characters’ thoughts. On the plus side, it boasts a stellar cast including Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Virginia Madsen, Max Von Sydow and Sting.

My rating: 1.5 stars

The Greatest Story Ever Told

In true 1960s Hollywood style, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a big budget and reverently embellished retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Max Von Sydow… again). If you’re looking for a film which is entertaining or exciting, you’ve come to the wrong place. Most of the characters do just seem to kind of stand and gawp unless they’ve got a line to read, though I must admit to a certain fondness for this film all the same. Also if you thought Dune had a famous cast, it is nothing compared to the legion of names you’ll see in the credits of this biblical epic.

My rating: 2.5 stars

Star Trek Beyond

It’s not quite as bad a Star Trek film as, say, Star Trek: Nemesis but still… it was pretty disappointing. The plot and the characters actually had a lot of potential (I really thought we were going to finally see some proper Bones/Spock banter), but this was unfortunately wasted by the poor pacing. The end result was nothing more than a non-stop, heart-thumping, thrill-ride that never really gave the audience an opportunity to be drawn into the story in any significant way.

My rating: 2.5 stars

The Illusionist

The Illusionist is a period drama about a stage magician (Edward Norton) from a humble background caught up in a love triangle/class war with his aristocratic love-interest (Jessica Biel) and her equally blue blooded but abusive fiance (Rufus Sewell).

The pacing was beautiful. The acting was delightful. The twist at the end was marvellous.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Les Misérables

I don’t think I’m the sort of guy to scrunch my nose up at a film just because it’s a musical, and everyone else tells me this adaptation of Les Misérables is the best thing since sliced bread but…

You asked for my opinion so I’m just gonna say it: I hated this film. I can’t think of anything less satisfying than watching Russell Crowe singing for two and a half hours. My wife enjoyed it though, if that means anything to you.

My rating: 1 star

My wife’s rating: 4 stars


And that’s a wrap! No doubt we’ll do it all again soon with a different selection of stories.

Until next time… !

The End…?

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen the ITV TV series Doc Martin, the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis, or the ABC TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (season 4) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It can be tough knowing when to call it a day with your fictional creations. Knowing exactly where and how to end your story in a way which is both memorable and satisfying is hard enough (though if you’re a novelist, you probably long for the day you can gather all your friends and neighbours around your desk to set off party-poppers while you write ‘THE END’ at the bottom of your manuscript), but if you’ve created characters and a world you’re proud of, you might never want to stop. You might feel like there’s a sequel, a trilogy or a whole saga of novels/films/TV series still to be written. Sooner or later, however, it has to come to an end – as all good things must.

‘But when?!’ I hear you cry.

It depends very much on your story. Some stories naturally lend themselves to a certain number of sequels. For example, if J.K. Rowling had stopped writing Harry Potter books after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her readers might have reasonably felt a little cheated. True, that particular story was complete (as it should be; every book in a series should still work as a self-contained story) but the premise of the story – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard and goes to a special school to learn magic – was still left very much open. After all, he still had several years of magic schooling to complete. There was plenty of scope for the character to go on another five or six magical adventures.

On the other hand, the ITV series Doc Martin – one of my favourite TV shows, I should add – is apparently due to have an eighth series in 2017. While I’m looking forward to it, I am, nevertheless, a little concerned that series 7 should have been the last one – and I’ll tell you why.

For those of you who don’t know, Doc Martin is a fish-out-of-water type story about Dr. Martin Ellingham; a grumpy and socially inept surgeon from London who develops haemophobia and is forced to become a GP in the seaside village of Portwenn. Most of the first few series focused on his awkwardly developing romance between himself and a local school teacher, Louisa. For the first four series or so, it worked quite naturally. In the dramatic finale to series 4, Martin and Louisa’s child is born and they resolve to give their relationship another go. It seems like a neat and tidy ending to the story…

But then, a 5th series was announced.

Is this necessary? I wondered. Hasn’t this story now finished?

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed. Martin and Louisa’s baby added a new dynamic to their on-off relationship and series 5 worked as well as the rest. Then there was a 6th series, which focused on their new and swiftly failing marriage. That also worked. Then there was yet another series which focused on the two characters trying to save their marriage – and another happy ending! Mr and Mrs Ellingham were again reconciled and life goes on. Once again, we have a neat and tidy ending to the story. They’ve got together, fallen out, had their baby, got together again, got married, split up and once again reconciled. I’m finding it difficult to imagine what more there is for Martin and Louisa to do that justifies another series that they haven’t done already – much as I love the show and wish it could last forever (and I do hope they prove me wrong once again).

So… when you feel the urge to write a sequel to your story, there is one very important question you should yourself before you write anything: ‘do I need to write more?’

There are three possible answers to this question:

  1. No, the story is complete and there is no conceivable way to expand the story without spoiling it (e.g., Star Trek: Nemesis — the final film in the Star Trek: The Next Generation series — ended with most of the series’ cast leaving the Enterprise for one reason or another. Since the series is so focused on the lives of that particular crew of that particular starship, further sequels would have been impossible).
  2. Yes, because there are still some glaringly obvious loose threads that need tied up (e.g., at the end of Doc Martin series 6, Martin and Louisa were still separated and Louisa was planning on moving to Spain. Is this the end for them? We needed another series to find out).
  3. Maybe. The original story has a satisfying ending, but there is no reason that our favourite characters cannot go on brand new adventures based on the same basic premise (e.g., the aforementioned series 4 of Doc Martin could have been a satisfying way to end it forever, but as it turned out, there was still some life left in the old dog after all).

If the answer is no, then it should be obvious what you must do – or not do, rather. It will all end in tears if you try to expand the inexpandable. The best you could hope for is a spin-off, and spin-offs are seldom any good.

If the answer is yes, then by all means, you absolutely must write that sequel! The last ever episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ended with a baby wrapped in a House of El blanket, being left on Lois and Clark’s doorstep! That was it! No more Lois and Clark after that! I mean, what are they trying to do to us!?

If, however, the answer is maybe… then think, long and hard, before you write. To carry on a series, your newest offering must be both old (that is, the premise must be unchanged) and it must be new (no rehashing the same old adventures). The reason Harry Potter worked so well as a lengthy series of novels was that by using a school as the main setting and making each novel last roughly one academic year, Rowling was able to write seven very different stories based on exactly the same premise (though I can’t help feeling that more recent offerings, no matter how good they may be, are causing the saga to drag on beyond its natural lifespan). That’s what you need to be able to do, if you plan on writing additional stories for your fictional world. Identify the natural lifespan of your story and work within it. Don’t bombard your audience with extra waffle. I might enjoy a pizza, but if I was fed it non-stop, I would eventually vomit. A good story should end like a good meal; leaving the audience with a big feeling of satisfaction and only a small tinge of regret that it’s over.

A Few Thoughts on Star Trek Beyond

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Star Trek Beyond is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m a Trekkie, so naturally I’ve already been to see the latest offering of the franchise, written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung: Star Trek Beyond. I’ll resist the urge to pull up the writers for the various inconsistencies there were with the original Star Trek universe (suffice it to say, there were some and we’re all very cross about it but let’s be honest, there’s always something isn’t there?) and, as ever, I’ll leave any analyses of the cinematics to those better qualified than I to make any kind of judgement about them (although I will quickly say that Chris Pine is doing a much better Kirk impression these days than he used to). What I want to talk about today is the story-writing in this specific film.

So, first things first: did I like Star Trek Beyond?

It was alright. It was better than Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance, but it wasn’t a patch on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or even Star Trek Into Darkness. If visually spectacular space battles and non-stop action, excitement and danger are your thing then you will probably enjoy it. When boiled down to its basic elements, the plot was a little bit unremarkable: an angry alien (who is actually a human! Dun-dun-duun!) wants to unleash an extra-deadly bio-weapon into the ventilation system of the new Federation starbase Yorktown, which is home to thousands of innocent civilians from different Federation worlds (which is not entirely dissimilar to the plot of Nemesis, where an angry Reman  — who is actually a human clone! Dun-dun-duun! — wants to unleash an extra-deadly form of radiation into Earth’s atmosphere, but I’ll not say anything more about that).

In and of itself, there’s really nothing wrong with that kind of plot if it’s executed well. My main problem with Beyond was the pacing of the plot. It was fast and exciting almost from the outset, but as any good writer will tell you, speed and excitement cannot make a good story alone. Slower scenes, rich in dialogue and other details are important to allow for a build-up in suspense and to keep the audience abreast of what is actually going on. In particular, these slow scenes are essential for adding substance and meaning to a story. I felt like Star Trek Beyond was all action and excitement for the first two thirds of the film and then crammed most of the major plot developments into the final scenes, where it is suddenly revealed that Krall is actually a human who got stranded on that alien planet before the Federation was founded and kept himself alive using alien technology to sap something from the native beings on that planet and now he’s out for revenge – and it’s a real shame, because I think this film definitely did have something to say which was in keeping with the original spirit of Star Trek. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear over the noise of all the explosions, phaser fire and motorbikes.

I think what would have really improved this film would have been more slow scenes featuring Krall himself to give the audience some inkling into what was driving him. After Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, poor Krall had a lot to live up to as a bad guy. He needed to be complicated and I think he had that potential, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was such that he came across as very two dimensional indeed. Perhaps if he had a right-hand man whom he could dialogue with (similar to the way scenes between Shinzon and his Viceroy in Nemesis foreshadowed the revelations which were still to come), it might have made the revelation of his human origins and his desire to avenge himself on the Federation seem a little less random and there would have also been an opportunity for some of his more complex thoughts and feelings to surface.

Speaking of under-cooked characterisation, there is also a subplot concerning Kirk and Spock’s friendship with each other and their respective futures in Starfleet, which is sadly lost amid all the excitement of the main plot. Having said that, I was very pleased to see that the relationship between Spock and Bones was allowed a little bit more room to develop in this film than it did in the previous two. Anyone who has ever watched the original Star Trek series featuring the late Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley in the aforementioned roles will tell you that their on-screen rivalry was the best in Star Trek history and it is good to see these two characters having time alone together to interact once again (although I did think that their dialogues with each other could have benefited from a few more scathing insults and sharp-witted jibes; it turned into a bit of a ‘bromance’ here and there, which isn’t really the kind of relationship you would expect from Spock and Bones).

All in all… it’s not a bad film. It’s not even a terrible Star Trek film, although it’s certainly not the best one I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a Trekkie, go and see it with some popcorn and a large drink in a paper cup and enjoy it for the entertaining escapism that it is.

Suspense: A Deliberately Awful Story

When I started this site, I had in mind to do a regular post (perhaps once a month) where I would set myself the challenge of writing a story using various random stimuli, such as plot generators, story dice or random images. If you’re a regular follower of this site, you’ll notice that I clearly have not made the regular habit of this I intended to. However, that doesn’t mean I’ve never done it and today’s short story came about as a result of a random creativity prompt provided to me by the Android app, Writer Unblocked:

In 1000 words or less, write what happens when a B-movie director gets stuck between floors in an elevator.

When I got this prompt, I couldn’t help but think that it actually sounded a bit like a B-movie about a B-movie director so naturally I thought it would be a bit of a wheeze to write it in screenplay format (or at least, as close to screenplay as I could get it; I’ve never actually written a screenplay before and WordPress has rather messed up my formatting) and give it the paper thin plot, terrible dialogue and half-naked robo-bodybuilder you would expect to find in a B-movie. My tongue was, as you might expect, firmly embedded in my cheek when I wrote this. So without further ado, I give you…

SUSPENSE

by

A. Ferguson

FADE IN:

EXT. FALLBRIDGE UNIVERSITY CAMPUS – EARLY EVENING

Modern and stylish university building, surrounded by leafy green trees and basking in a brilliant sunset.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. LECTURE THEATRE – EARLY EVENING

No one is present in the lecture theatre, save for JOHN, an ageing bachelor, lecturer in English literature and b-movie enthusiast. In his spare time, he has even directed a few budget films. He is tidying up various papers, preparing to leave. The door opens to reveal SUSAN; a bright, vibrant young woman who must be intelligent because she goes to university. Sweet as chocolate strawberries dipped in sugar.

SUSAN

(embarrassed)

Oh, hello professor!

JOHN

Susan? What can I do for you?

PETER becomes visible loitering behind the open door; a cocksure lad with an elaborate hairstyle and various accessories. A walking fashion statement. At that moment he is being uncharacteristically shy. He is SUSAN’s boyfriend.

SUSAN

I was just looking for… um… my purse. I wondered if I left it here.

JOHN

Of course you were. Hello Peter!

PETER

Hello, professor.

JOHN

Well Susan, I’ve had lectures all day and nobody’s handed it in. Did you try the office downstairs?

SUSAN

Oh, how silly of me! I’ll try there now.

SUSAN leaves hastily just as JOHN finishes packing away the last of his things and follows them into the–

CORRIDER

The elevator door is just beginning to close. JOHN runs towards it.

JOHN

Hold the lift!

He manages at the last moment to slide into the —

ELEVATOR

PETER and SUSAN are there already along with RACHEL, a brilliant student of robotics. She is wearing a white coat and glasses, because she’s a scientist obviously. PETER and SUSAN are already talking with her when JOHN gets on the elevator. JOHN presses the elevator button and the doors close. The lift moves down.

RACHEL

The PN-STKN Unit is also connected to the internet, giving it full access to the sum total of human knowledge. There’s still a few kinks to work out in its software, but at least my part’s done! Once it’s on, it’ll be almost indistinguishable from a real man.

PETER

(winking)

I bet it doesn’t do everything a real guy can.

RACHEL

Not quite. He’s very gentlemanly.

SUSAN and RACHEL laugh. PETER is humiliated.

JOHN

(V.O.)

Robotic men… that’s silly, you only get those in movies. Heck, the one we had in ‘The Grim Robot’ sounded more plausible than this girl’s science project.

Suddenly the lift shudders. The lights flicker and go out.

SUSAN

What was that?!

JOHN

Nothing. Lift’s probably just stuck.

SUSAN

(suddenly panicking)

I don’t like small spaces!

PETER holds SUSAN protectively.

PETER

It’s fine, we’ll be out in no time. Won’t we professor?

JOHN

Of course we will.

JOHN begins thumbing the emergency button. Nothing happens. He tries repeatedly, scowling.

PETER

Maybe you need to hold it?

JOHN holds the button and speaks into the speaker on the wall.

JOHN

Hello? Can anyone hear me?

There is an almighty bang from above. The lift begins to sway. Another almighty bang, as if something heavy has landed on the roof of the lift. SUSAN screams. A large, dark grey fist bursts through the ceiling. SUSAN screams again.

JOHN

What the – ?!

RACHEL

It’s the PN-STKN Unit! It wasn’t due to be activated until next week!

PETER

Well, it’s definitely active now… and it’s coming for us!

The fist punches through the ceiling again, making the hole bigger.

PN-STKN (O.S.)

Humans are inferior! You must be destroyed!

SUSAN screams. Two dark grey hands begin to pry the hole in the ceiling open even further.

JOHN

Quickly, how do we shut it down?

RACHEL

You can’t, not if it’s gone active! I built it to be like a real man, only better! There’s no off switch!

PN-STKN (O.S.)

Humans are inferior! You must be destroyed!

JOHN

If only there was a bunch of jumped-up kids here, they’d know what to do!

The hole in the ceiling is now wide enough for us to see PN-STKN; a dark grey man with obscenely large muscles wearing nothing but black briefs and a black leather waistcoat. His hair is black and slicked back. He happens to have a large circular saw in one hand, held close to the elevator cable.

PN-STKN

Humans… Stand clear of the doors.

JOHN produces a gun from out of nowhere and shoots frantically but its bullets have no effect.

PN-STKN

Your weapons are inferior.

PN-STKN shoots lasers from its eyes and vapourises SUSAN.

RACHEL

I am your creator! Stop what you’re doing!

PN-STKN

Negative.

The saw begins cutting through the cable with a shrill whine.

PN-STKN (CONT’D)

Going down.

PETER

(tearfully)

He killed Susan! Why did you have to kill her?! She was no threat to you!

PN-STKN

Your emotion makes you inferior. You must die.

JOHN

(suddenly inspired)

No! No, it doesn’t! It makes us superior!

PN-STKN

Negative.

JOHN

I can prove it!

RACHEL

Professor, what are you doing?

PN-STKN hesitates. The saw stops spinning.

PN-STKN

Proceed.

JOHN

Ok… you shot Susan, not Peter; yet Peter suffers.

PN-STKN

Peter is illogical.

PETER

No, I’m not! I’m sad because… because I loved her man! And now she’s dead! It’s totally logical! There’s nothing more logical!

PN-STKN

Love makes you weak. Weakness makes you inferior.

JOHN

You have access to the whole internet don’t you? Well Google this! ‘Tis is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’! Better, you see? Love is better than no love!

PN-STKN

Illogical. Love is weakness… yet is better?!!

PN-STKN’s head explodes.

JOHN

This lift’s full.

RACHEL

Well done professor!

PETER

You did it! Next time, though, I’m taking the stairs!

They laugh. The lift continues moving and the lights return.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. LIFT SHAFT BOTTOM.

Smoldering robot parts litter the floor. A single disembodied hand begins to move!

FADE OUT.

If You Don’t Like Mysteries, You’ll Love Mr. Holmes

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to prevent spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Mr. Holmes (2015) or read the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Last year, I was standing waiting for a bus when one passed by (not the one I was waiting for) with a poster on the side, advertising a new film that was about to be released. The poster was plain white apart from a very well dressed and sour faced Ian McKellen. The title of the film was Mr. Holmes.

‘Oh, a new Sherlock Holmes film.’ I thought, my interest piqued. ‘I must remember to make time to go and see that.’

Suffice it to say I did not remember and, whether it was because of my own poor fortune or because the film was inadequately publicised, I did not see hide nor hair of that film again until this very year when I was perusing Amazon for something to watch and it recommended this little gem to me. The reviews on Amazon were generally good but there were also enough negative reviews to give me doubts. However, being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and knowing that Ian McKellen’s acting is always a joy to watch (no matter how bad the rest of the film is) I decided to give it a chance.

In this film, Sherlock Holmes is now in his nineties and is struggling with his failing memory. He has long since retired to a farmhouse in Sussex where he lives in relative solitude apart from his housekeeper, her son and the bees he now keeps. Because of his failing memory, he cannot precisely remember how his last case as a private detective ended; however, he is certain that the now deceased Watson’s novelisation of it cannot be correct because it portrays Sherlock as having solved the case triumphantly, as he always does. Sherlock cannot accept that he would have retired except after a terrible failure, and so, with the encouragement of his housekeeper’s son and consumed with guilt over something he cannot fully recall, he tries to write the story of the case as it truly happened. Meanwhile, his housekeeper is growing increasingly restless with her role as Sherlock’s housekeeper-come-nurse and resolves to move to Portsmouth with her son, who has grown very attached to Sherlock. There is also a sub-plot concerning a Japanese man who lures Sherlock to Japan in order to confront him about the disappearance of his father, for which he blames Sherlock.

If you’re looking for a ‘who dunnit’ or another exciting instalment of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sherlock goes on no adventure in this story, nor is there a particularly mystery to be solved (unless you count his attempt to remember what he has forgotten). Unlike more traditional Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Holmes is gently paced and driven by its key themes: regret, ageing, death and senility. I know that probably makes it sound like quite a miserable film, but in reality I found this film to be surprisingly light-hearted and sweetened with a light dusting of humour and sentimentality.

This film is particularly concerned with giving us a glimpse at the real Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the ‘character out of a pantomime’ he feels he has become through the novelisations and dramatisations of his various cases. Indeed, Sherlock himself appears keen to distance himself from that character. For example, there is a reference at one point to the fact he does not have his deerstalker or pipe. The reason for this, he claims, is that the deerstalker was a mere embellishment and that he prefers a cigar to a pipe; especially now that the pipe has become nothing more than a ‘prop’. It is also revealed to us that 221B Baker Street was, in fact, not his actual address but a deliberate attempt to mislead fans and tourists who were intent on visiting him.

As well as his obvious trademarks, his own personality is also very different from the character we are used to. The writers (and, I should add, McKellen himself) have done a fantastic job here of showing us the other side of Sherlock, without making him a different person altogether. His paternal feelings towards his housekeeper’s son, for example, seem to be a far cry from the cold hearted mystery solving machine that we are all so familiar with. In spite of this, he still retains his uncanny ability to tell everything a person has done simply by looking at them and his philosophy that the truth will always be uncovered by careful analysis of the facts. While he does retain a certain bluntness and an apparent cold heartedness, this seems to be little more than veneer (a thin one at that) which he uses to distance himself from difficult feelings. His warmth towards his housekeeper’s son, the empathy he shows towards his client’s wife and his regret over her death and the deaths of his friends make him seem altogether more human.

His attitudes towards death strikes me as particularly important. He approaches his own looming demise with an apparent nonchalance and claims never to have mourned the dead – bearing in mind that this is set after the death of John Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Mrs Hudson, all of whom were key figures in Sherlock’s life.

I can’t say that I’ve ever mourned the dead, bees or otherwise. I concentrate on circumstances. How did it die? Who was responsible? Death, grieving, mourning; they’re all commonplace. Logic is rare (Mr. Holmes 2015).

This air of indifference is typical of the traditional Sherlock; in Mr. Holmes, however, it sounds quite hollow. The fact that he was powerless to prevent his client’s wife from killing herself, despite recognising all the facts, has affected him deeply – to such an extent that it drove him to retirement. He also regrets that, after breaking off contact with Watson, he never had a chance to say goodbye to him before he died. When his housekeeper’s son is nearly killed by a swarm of wasps, he sees all the evidence of what has happened and, uncharacteristically, assumes it must have been his bees that were to blame (at least at first) rather than notice that the evidence clearly implicates a nearby nest of wasps. While most of us might consider this a normal reaction to finding a boy lying bruised and unconscious next to a hive of bees, it is rather atypical of Sherlock Holmes. The film also ends with him setting up memorial stones for everyone he has lost (or at least, everyone we have heard of anyway)

All in all, this is a enjoyable and easy to watch film but I would certainly caution any lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan that Mr. Holmes is best enjoyed if you approach it with absolutely no preconceptions about what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. It is a very good piece of cinema but it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes film by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it try to be. It’s not a mystery. It’s not an adventure. It’s a drama and a pretty decent one at that. Approach it as such and you will probably come away satisfied.

Accounting for Taste

I’ve got a confession to make.

I don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. There, I’ve said it.

The strange thing is that I generally do like long and complex fantasy and there’s no denying that Martin is a very good writer… But as I slogged through the first two books of A Song of Ice And Fire, I became increasingly conscious that I was only persevering with it because I felt like I had to; partly because in my pride, I never like to leave a book half read and partly because everyone else seems to like it. But when you’re really not enjoying a story and there’s still another whole five books left to read after you finish the one you’re on, there’s only one course of action.

Even as I write this, I can feel my fellow book-lovers judging me for (temporarily!) giving up on it and my fellow fellow fantasy-readers judging me for not liking one of the most popular fantasy authors of his generation. But why waste your life reading books you’re not enjoying?

The truth is, there’s a lot of snobbishness surrounding fiction. People who read literary fiction often look down upon people who read genre fiction; people who read hard sci-fi often look down their noses at people who watch Star Trek or Doctor Who; people who read anything at all often judge those who prefer to get their fiction-fix from TV than the pages of a book; most bizarrely of all, there seems to be some dispute about whether or not e-books constitute ‘real’ books.

Am I alone in finding this a little strange? No matter how much I may love fiction (and I do!), it is, ultimately, just that. Fiction. Untruths. Entertaining lies. Why, then, does it matter which ones we enjoy and which ones we don’t? We often speak of our ‘guilty pleasures’; TV shows or books we like but know we shouldn’t but… hold the bus! Why shouldn’t we?

I earlier referred to my dissatisfaction with A Song of Ice And Fire. I should say that I am not for one second suggesting that Martin wrote a bad story. It’s a very clever story, a very well developed fantasy world and very well written but… it just wasn’t for me. Equally there are some things I do like but feel irrationally guilty about, usually because they are mindless escapism without any real substance to them. Normally I prefer to read something with a bit of meaning to it but why should that put me off enjoying the odd bit of drivel, too?

So, I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time we all just read what we like to read, write what we like to write and ditch whatever doesn’t suit us. What you’re about to read is my completely unashamed, unabashed Confession of my Fiction Preferences (okay, so it has been slightly abridged but only because I like to keep my word count to under 1000 words per post).

My Unashamed, Unabashed, Heavily Abridged Confession of Fictional Preferences

  • I liked The Lord of the Rings books, but not the films.
  • I like fantasy in general, especially if it is based on myth.
  • I loved Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace and the subsequent 1959 Hollywood epic based on it.
  • I loved the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss. I’ve never seen the film.
  • I love Sherlock Holmes. I particularly enjoyed:
    • the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
    • The House of Silk and Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
    • Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes by Bernard Schaffer
    • the BBC drama Sherlock
    • Jeremy Brett’s unique portrayal of Holmes.
  • However I do hate everything about the CBS TV show, Elementary.
  • I am a full blown Trekkie. I love everything about Star Trek (including the Abrams reboots!) except for Enterprise.
  • In spite of being a Trekkie, I also love Star Wars (however I still have not seen The Force Awakens).
  • I love Doctor Who (BBC sci-fi drama TV series)My favourite Doctor of all time is Tom Baker although Peter Capaldi is in serious danger of becoming a close second. It’s just a shame he is wasted on the disappointing stories that have been produced recently.
  • In fact, I just love sci-fi and speculative fiction in general. Sci-fi books I particularly enjoyed included:
    • The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick,
    • Dune by Frank Herbert,
    • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov,
    • the Awakened series by Jason Tesar,
    • Becoming Human by Eliza Green and
    • The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
  • I do not like disaster films.
  • I do not like horror films.
  • I do not like rom-coms.
  • I hate Twilight and everything similar to Twilight. In fact I hate anything to do with vampires which isn’t Dracula.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed The Illusionist (2006 film) but I don’t know anyone else who has ever seen it.
  • John Steinbeck is one author who can do no wrong.
  • I love Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The best actor to portray Poirot was David Suchet.
  • I do not like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
  • I got bored of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.
  • I think Harry Potter is overrated at best.
  • I do not like Friends (NBC sitcom)Sue me.
  • I never met a C.S. Lewis book I didn’t like and I regret that he didn’t write more stories.
  • Remember what I said about guilty pleasures? I like Holby City (BBC medical drama). Sue me again.
  • I love Doc Martin (ITV comedy drama).
  • I love Fawlty Towers (BBC sitcom).
  • I love Only Fools and Horses (BBC sitcom).
  • I like most of the James Bond books and films. Daniel Craig is my favourite Bond with Roger Moore a close second.
  • I like superheroes in comics and movies.
    • I do not care too much for the darker manifestations of Superman that we have been seeing recently. I recently re-watched the ’90s TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It was very cheesy but that didn’t stop me watching all four seasons.
    • The Amazing Spider-Man (films) were oh-so-much-better than the Spider-Man films featuring Toby McGuire.
    • I liked the first two Batman films. I wasn’t so fussed about Batman Forever. I did not like Batman and Robin. I love The Dark Knight trilogy.
  • I like the Christopher Marlowe play, Doctor Faustus.
  • I bitterly regret being the only British person in history to have gone through the whole school system without a single lesson on the work of Shakespeare.
  • Yes, I do think e-books are just as valid as paper books, though I will admit that paper books have a delicious smell you don’t get with e-books.

The Essential Voice of Red

I may have previously given the impression that I generally don’t like it when good stories get adapted to suit another medium, such as when a book is adapted for film. If that is the case, I owe you an apology because that is not exactly what I meant and it is certainly not true. Remakes and adaptations often can be very good if they are made by someone who knows exactly what they are doing.

The Shawshank Redemption (written and directed by Frank Darabont) is, in my opinion, one of the most splendid films I have ever had the privilege of watching, based on the equally splendid Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens (though really, you should have either read it or watched it by now; everyone should have) but suffice it to say that it is set in the Shawshank State Penitentiary and follows the story of a man called Andy (portrayed in the film by Tim Robbins) who befriends a fellow convict called Red (Morgan Freeman) while serving a life sentence for murder. In both the book and the film, Red also acts as the narrator. There are lots of good things about the film adaptation I could focus on, but it’s the narrative voice in the film and the book I want to focus on just now, because it is a prime example of a director demonstrating that he knew exactly what he was doing.

At first, Morgan Freeman might seem like an odd choice to play a character who the book describes as a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. A less skilled director may have been tempted to simply cast a good actor who more or less fitted the physical description. Wonderful an actor though he is, this would clearly not be Morgan Freeman. No accent he could put on would change the fact that he simply does not look like a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. But when you read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, it is hard not to hear Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice on almost every word.

Narrative voice is always important in fiction but especially in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The narrative is more reflective than descriptive, giving us only snapshots of how Red remembers the specific events that occurred in Shawshank during the twenty-seven years of Andy’s incarceration, woven together in such a way as to create a fully fledged description of how Andy arrived at Shawshank, protected himself while there and eventually made his dramatic exit, rather than giving us a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened to Andy or to Red.

It is this, the narrative voice in the book, that makes this role so right for Morgan Freeman. Other very famous and very excellent actors were considered and they might have even been able to do the character justice to some extent but I doubt if anyone else could have pulled off the voice-over narration quite the way Morgan Freeman did. There was a worldly-wisdom about Red in the novella which suits the type of character Morgan Freeman typically plays so well. He observes what is going on around him and he evaluates his own relationship with Andy in that philosophical and darkly humorous way that we have come to expect from Morgan Freeman. Given that the novella is written in the form of Red’s own reflections on his relationship with Andy through-out the course of his sentence, I think it was probably essential that this narrative voice, created by Stephen King in the novella, was maintained for  Darabont’s film adaptation.

I suppose it could be because I’ve seen the film that I imagine it in Freeman’s voice but I don’t think so. I’ve seen Live and Let Die more times than I care to number, but when I read the book, the 007 I encountered there was more like Daniel Craig’s Bond than Roger Moore’s. It wasn’t just what he said; it was how he said it. James Bond in the novels is a far colder man the somewhat playful character Roger Moore portrayed, no matter how alike the basic plots may be. Craig’s crisp, masculine voice delivers each short, bitey line in a way which fits the cruel persona we find in the books. The same is true of Red in Shawshank, though Bond gets away with using a wider variety of actors far more than Shawshank would have because the different kind of narrative voice it employs made voice-over narration unnecessary in the Bond films.

Of course, Morgan Freeman does not single-handedly make The Shawshank Redemption the movie it is. There are a million other good reasons to watch this film and all of the actors give a top-notch performance but for me, the actor Darabont cast to play Red was a make-or-break decision for this adaptation on account of that magnificent narrative voice employed in the novella and I’m pleased to say that when it came to casting for The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont chose well.

The Much Maligned Movie Re-Make

‘The book was better!’ was the cry.

You know you’ve said it a million times over. I know I have. And I bet you secretly judge people who tell you they preferred the film/TV adaptation to the book. I know I do.

Of course the age we live in now is such that it is difficult to write a book without it being made into a film; it is difficult to produce a film without it being turned into a computer game; worst of all, computer games have a nasty habit of spawning cinematic abominations with all the substance of a reality TV show for amoebas.

So, do re-makes ever have any value?

It’s tempting to just say ‘no’, but they often do, if they are executed very carefully by someone who appreciates the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium.

For example, Mortal Kombat pretty much defined its particular genre of gaming and to this day continues to be one of the most successful fighting game franchises on the market. Like all good games, Mortal Kombat does have a story, but it’s not really central to the game. And that was okay, because the story wasn’t really the point; it was about the fighting. But when they transferred it over to film and TV… suddenly, it was awful. Mortal Kombat (1995 film) was at best an okay bit of martial-arts escapism; Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was terrible; and don’t even get me started on Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Mortal Kombat is not for children; they should not try to make it child-friendly).

Let’s take the main bad guy for example: Shao Kahn. In the game he comes from another dimension and wants to take over our dimension. He has a distinctive costume and says the odd catch-phrase while fighting like ‘Bow to me!’ and ‘You will never win!’. He also appears in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wearing more or less the right outfit and saying most of his catchphrases from the game and… well, that’s about it. He’s as 2d in the film as he was in the game.

He also appeared in the 1998-’99 TV series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, where he was portrayed by Jeff Meek. His costume was quite different from the games and he made far less use of the recognisable catchphrases but in my opinion, he was also the best thing about this (otherwise unspectacular) show. He had been given a bit of character. He was cunning, paranoid and merciless. He was swift to anger but still had a soft side which came out around his adopted daughter (granted, he still killed her but it was apparent that he regretted it). If only everything about Konquest had been re-made as well as Shao Kahn had been, it might have been a really good TV show. Alas, they still relied a little too much on familiar characters, fight scenes and scantily clad females and I think that ruined it.

I used a game-to-movie as an example because that tends to be where you see the most stark examples of this type of thing but the principle applies to any story you want to transfer from one medium to another: it needs to be altered sufficiently to suit its new medium. Superhero comics, for example, often make for excellent films because the elaborate costumes, fast paced action scenes and super powers tend to look great when there is a well-budgeted special effects team behind it. Of course, even here, a little thought needs to be put into it. You may have noticed that in the X-Men films, they all wear black leather costumes whereas in the comics they tend to wear much brighter outfits. This was a wise decision; could you imagine Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) wearing the tight yellow and blue number he wore in the comics? Not a good look. Nevertheless you walk a tightrope as a film-maker between remaining faithful to the comics (as the fans all want) and making a film which is pleasing to the eye.

To some extent, you don’t have the same problem transferring books to films or TV. The big problem you do have is remaining faithful to the plot and especially maintaining the essence of every character. When reading a novel, we have access not only to what characters do and say but also to their thoughts and feelings; moreover the author will have carefully selected his/her words and will have crafted them in such a way that we gain a very precise understanding of what is going on. You don’t get that in films. Everything has to be made clear visually and there are only so many books that naturally lend themselves to this without ruining it (there’s a reason Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has been adapted for film so often!). Of course, plot-based novels (especially thrillers) make good films. We tend to forget that the ever-popular James Bond franchise started out as a series of novels (incidentally, I encourage you to read these and tell me which actor the books remind you the most of; I was a little surprised how often I imagined Daniel Craig while reading things like From Russia With Love).

So… is the re-make ever better than the original? I’m a little cautious of making broad general statements but I’ve never yet preferred the re-make of anything to the original. The original is usually written for the medium that suits it best by someone who ought to be an expert in that medium; a playwright writes a play that, in their professional opinion, will work well on stage; a novelist writes a novel that, in their professional opinion, will work well in print; a screenwriter writes a script that, in their professional opinion, will work well on film and so on. When you convert a novel to a film, for example, you’re asking a screenwriter to write for film something that came from the mind of a novelist, originally intended for print. Of course, someone especially skilled in their craft, who cares more about their art than the money they might make, can make a great success of this… but they will also have the wisdom to know when not to attempt it.